The UK's lack of a dedicated maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) fleet is continuing to draw the attention of companies eyeing a potential need to acquire successors for the Royal Air Force's British Aerospace Nimrod MR2s, the last of which were retired from use in March 2010.
Industry sources say a UK air ISTAR [intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance] optimisation study is set to soon enter a second phase, following an analysis of initial engagement between potential bidders and the Ministry of Defence. If progressed, this could lead to the latter seeking to establish a funding line by April 2014 to conduct work leading to a possible future purchase.
All images: Craig Hoyle/Flightglobal
Several senior RAF officers were given a tour of a Portuguese air force Airbus Military C295 multimission aircraft at the 20-21 July Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) at Fairford in Gloucestershire. Operated by the service's 502 Sqn from Montijo air base, the adapted transport was on static display in its MPA configuration, which includes onboard operator workstations, an electro-optical infrared camera and a maritime search radar.
Portugal operates 12 C295s, with five equipped with the pallet-based MPA fit at any one time. This configuration includes fuselage-mounted side-looking airborne radar sensors, used for tasks including pollution detection.
"We have a 200-mile [range] radar which can track up to 1,000 targets," says 502 Sqn commanding officer Lt Col Pedro Bernardino. Other roles undertaken by the unit in four years of operating the C295 have included troop transport, supporting long-range search and rescue operations involving the Portuguese air force's AgustaWestland AW101 helicopters, and acting as a command and control platform during aerial firefighting activities, he says.
Airbus Military has already discussed potential co-operation with local equipment suppliers for a potential UK competition, says Gary Soul, head of strategy and business development at EADS UK. The company, which he says "has a slick solution, with some winning ideas", displayed a model of a torpedo-equipped C295 in RAF markings in its chalet at RIAT. The manufacturer has already cleared a similar combination for the Chilean navy, and recently performed airborne separation tests using MBDA's Marte Mk2 anti-ship missile.
Other possible candidates for a potential UK multimission/MPA requirement would include the Boeing 737-based P-8 and a so-called Swordfish offering based on the Saab 2000. The Swedish company brought an unmodified example of its out-of-production regional airliner to RIAT, using it to fly in senior executives including chief executive Håkan Buskhe.
Following its retirement of the Nimrod MR2 and cancellation of the planned replacement Nimrod MRA4 in late 2010, the MoD is sustaining a so-called "seedcorn" initiative aimed at maintaining personnel experience on dedicated MPA assets flown by allies Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA.
The MoD planned to spend £3.8 million ($5.8 million) during the 2012-13 financial year on the seedcorn activity, with this involving 34 RAF personnel, according to information released in April.